This is the multi-million dollar dance of the 'Yellow Shirts'

Flight deck operations on an aircraft carrier have often been compared to a ballet. Sailors at work on a flight deck wear an assortment of colored jerseys to specify their job.

After watching how the flight deck operates for a while, it is clear the yellow shirts are in charge of the big dance, and those jerseys are worn by aviation boatswain’s mates.

The aviation boatswain’s mates who work on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz are directly responsible for the handling and maneuvering of aircraft as well as the safety of all personnel during flight operations. Any mistake or lack of better judgment can cause damage to equipment or injury to personnel on the flight deck.

USMC photo by Sgt. Christopher Q. Stone.

USMC photo by Sgt. Christopher Q. Stone.

“At first being a yellow shirt was scary, but now that I have some confidence, I would say there is a sense of pride,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Melanie Cluck, an aviation boatswain’s mate. “On the flight deck, we are not only responsible for directing aircraft, but also for directing people. Normally, anyone who needs guidance on the flight deck looks for a yellow shirt. Safety of all the personnel on deck is a big part of our job as well. So we don’t only need to know our job, but everyone else’s as well.”

Blue Shirts

Before donning the sought-after yellow jersey, aviation boatswain’s mates wear blue jerseys to indicate that they are in a more junior status. These sailors are normally newer airmen who have yet to acquire all of the necessary qualifications. Their main responsibilities during flight operations include chocking and chaining, running elevators, and tractor operation.

“Being a blue shirt is hard work, but it makes you tough,” said Seaman Michael Lothrop. “It’s hot up there right now, and we work long days, but you have to be on alert at all times and ready to get the job done whenever you are needed.”

Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ian Kinkead

Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ian Kinkead

Blue shirts are normally covered in grease and always carrying something heavy, whether it be a chain, tractor bar, or chock. They play a big part in the maneuvering of aircraft on the flight deck because they do most of the hands-on work. During their time wearing blue, they learn the ins and outs of properly directing aircraft, which helps build the foundation of a high-performance yellow shirt.

The job requires attention to detail and an extreme amount of knowledge to be performed well. The training and the number of hours a sailor needs to put in to become a yellow shirt is impressive.

“There are two main qualifications you get as a blue shirt, but from there, it’s all about if your chain of command sees you have the initiative to take on being a yellow shirt,” Cluck said.

Earning the Yellow Jersey

Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Benjamin Crossley

Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Benjamin Crossley

Sailors must qualify as flight deck observers and learn directing and handling in addition to the qualifications all sailors are required to attain when they report to Nimitz. The requirements take roughly 12 weeks to complete. Sailors then take a written and oral test administered by the flight deck leading petty officer, assistant LPO, and any other yellow-shirt-qualified chief petty officers or first class petty officers who decide to attend.

Once sailors earn the right to wear the yellow jersey on the flight deck, they enter an apprenticeship period called “under inspection.” This means they need an experienced yellow shirt to help them along the way toward becoming an expert at their new job on the flight deck.

UI yellow shirts are always accompanied by a seasoned mentor who is observing every signal and decision they make.

Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Fenaroli

Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Scott Fenaroli

“It’s a case-by-case basis on how long the UI process takes,” Cluck said. “The process is just there to make sure you fully understand what you are doing on the flight deck. It’s extensive work to say the least, but it helps you build character. The goal of the process is just to build you up to be the great yellow shirt you are supposed to be.”

Yellow shirts have to communicate through hand signals with pilots and other personnel working on the flight deck to safely move aircraft onto the catapults and off of the landing area.

“You have to be able to really get control of your aircraft and understand the pilot,” Cluck said. “It’s a gut feeling that you develop during your training. If you feel you need to slow the aircraft down, you can, and you start to learn when exactly to turn it. We have hundreds of hand signals we can use to take control of the aircraft on deck. The people in the pilot seats are officers, so you have to be professional, and every motion you make has to be crisp and precise to prevent accidents.”

Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Sheldon Rowley

Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Sheldon Rowley

The working environment of a yellow shirt is unlike anywhere else on the ship. The yellow shirt locker, or crew area, is on Nimitz’ flight deck. The tight-knit group of men and women spends their time out of the scorching heat joking, laughing, and preparing to launch multi-million dollar aircraft into the sky. It is here where the instructors of the world’s most dangerous ballet reside. It is here where the yellow shirts dwell, mentally preparing themselves to launch aircraft as their ship sits at the tip of the spear.

TOP ARTICLES
SpaceX launching a third top-secret satellite

SpaceX is launching a secretive mission this month. The mission, shrouded in secrecy, has some considering it may be for the CIA or the NSA.

This is how the Air Force will use prop planes on high-tech battlefields

The Air Force is looking toward a light-attack aircraft program, known as OA-X, to produce a plane that meets its needs and gets the job done.

A retired SEAL commander on how to stop thinking and 'get after it' every day

This former Navy commander has some excellent advice on how to jump start your day, and "get some" in order to make it as productive as possible.

Marines return to battle in 'old stomping grounds'

The Marines recall their "old stomping grounds" as they return to Fallujah and the surround areas of Al Anbar Province to battle a new enemy.

How Chinese drones are set to swarm the global market

China has stepped up it's drone game, and even though United States technology can still compete, China's drones are kind of really in demand.

That time two countries' Special Forces squared off in combat

In an area the size of the Falkland Islands, British and Argentine special operators were bound to run into each other at some point – a lot.

5 times pilots got in trouble for having fun in the sky

When pilots decide to do some fancy flying in their high-performance fighters, it can land them in trouble once they're back on the ground.

This is why Nazis dubbed these paratroopers 'devils in baggy pants'

"American paratroopers – devils in baggy pants – are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night," wrote one German commander.

9 ISIS weapon fails that you have to see to believe

Many bad guys just want record themselves laying rounds down range for social media purposes — and we're glad they did. Laugh away, America!

US Army recruitment campaigns, ranked from worst to best

Advertising can really impact recruitment for the military. For better or for worse, here are some of the Army's most memorable slogans...